For most children in the United States at the turn of the 20th century, life was not what you might call a cake walk. With no real child labor laws in place, with poverty abounding, and with the Industrial Revolution at full steam, children from working-class families had little choice but to help their families stay afloat, working in coal mines, factories, agriculture, and the like. Oftentimes, whole families – or father-son pairs – were hired together. However, rather than giving children jobs suited to their status as young, impressionable beings who can't really care for themselves, child laborers were given the jobs adults physically couldn't accomplish. In factories, for example, children were sent into the tiny, cramped interiors of the machines, tasked with fixing mechanisms that the adults simply couldn't reach. Despite doing things the adults couldn't, children received lower compensation than their adult counterparts.
In coal mines, their small stature made it so that children often had the most dangerous jobs available. Constantly in danger of being crushed by carts loaded down with coal, greasers ran up and down the tram tracks, a heavy bucket of grease on each arm, ensuring that the tram axles were appropriately greased at all times. Nippers (also called trappers) were children who had the dangerous responsibility of opening and closing the shaft doors as coal cars came hurtling down the sloped tracks. Boys who fell asleep in the total stillness and darkness – sometimes a mile beneath the surface – would be crushed if they failed to lift the door.
Thankfully, Progressive-Era activists took issue with the treatment of children in positions like these. Photographer Lewis Hine made it his personal mission to document the situation of children in the coal fields of Appalachia. Thanks to his persistence, not only do we have a trove of images documenting this era of American child labor, but the US government also passed the Keating-Owens Child Labor Act of 1916, which created a minimum age of 16 for mine workers and instated the eight-hour workday. However, this act was later deemed unconstitutional. True, lasting reform for child laborers didn't come until the New Deal in the 1930s.
The danger of being crushed by a cart loaded down with coal was ever-present for the young men working in the mines. Darting around carts to grease their axles, listening intently at the shaft door for the unmistakable rumble of a cart racing down the tracks – greasers and nippers were frequently injured or killed in the line of work. Speaking with Frank, the boy pictured above, circa 1907, Hine discovered that the 14 year old had recently spent a year in the hospital after having his leg crushed by a coal cart.
Breaker boys had the responsibility of removing impurities from car loads of coal – by hand. Working six days a week for 10 hours each day, the boys hunched over rapidly moving conveyor belts of coal, grabbing bits of slate and other rocks out of the haul. Breaker boys were frequently pulled into the gears of the conveyor belt and crushed; others had their limbs amputated after getting them caught in the fast-moving belt. Still others suffered from more common coal mining ailments like black lung disease, asthma, and sulfuric acid burns.
Though this photograph appears to show light in the mine shaft, in reality 15-year-old Vance would have been sitting in total darkness, waiting to open the door upon hearing an approaching coal car. The writing on the door wasn't visible until plate was developed.